Mudjimba's Phil Burke with his beloved Old Woman Island in the background.
Mudjimba's Phil Burke with his beloved Old Woman Island in the background. Contributed

BIG READ: Phil's fighting for a better world

PHIL Burke would love to turn the clock back.

It's not that he lives in the past. He just misses the simpler times when people really cared.

When they cared about themselves, about each other and about the planet they have to share.

He doesn't class himself was an environmentalist, but says he is certainly "environmentally aware".

He's not religious, but definitely""spiritual".

He's a lover, not a fighter; yet stepped into the boxing ring more than 100 times.

And Phil Burke cares ... about so many things.


Born in the Sydney beachside suburb of Dee Why in 1963, Phil had a classic Aussie beach upbringing.

His dad was a builder and his mother a stay-at-home mum and he says he and his older brother Stuart had a great life.

"I can never remember coming home from school and mum not being there," Phil recalls.

"I would come home and sit down and talk to mum about my day, then I'd be gone to the beach with a board under my arm.

"I think that's something that's lacking from the family unit in society today."

The family home was on the headland at Dee Why, so surfing and the ocean were the focal points of their childhood.

"When the southerly was blowing we'd surf Dee Why and when a north-easterly was blowing we'd surf Curl Curl," Phil recalls.

"There was a cliff face about 150 metres high at the end of the street and as I got older we'd abseil off the cliff with driving gear, set up on the rocks at the bottom and go snorkelling, abalone diving and cray diving.

"It was a great place to grow up."

Phil's dad was a first grade rugby league player and a foundation member of the Manly Leagues Club. He was also a stalwart member of Dee Why Life Saving Club and both Phil and his brother followed in his footsteps.

It was about as care-free an upbringing as you could imagine.

"Pretty well once mum and dad knew we were self-sufficient in the water, we were off on our own," he says.

"They'd never see us on the weekends. They knew we'd stay local and they knew we were safe.

"All our time was spent on the beach or in the water."


There was plenty to keep a young bloke busy while growing up in Sydney's Dee Why.
There was plenty to keep a young bloke busy while growing up in Sydney's Dee Why. Contributed

Travelling the world

He left Manly Boys High before finishing Year 10 and began an electrical apprenticeship.

After qualifying, he started his own small business, which allowed him to spend a lot of time surfing and travelling.

He began with New Zealand, where the west coast surf breaks were close enough to the mountains to allow him to indulge in surfing, snow skiing and mountain climbing.

He worked as a mountain climbing guide and in his spare time did ice climbs and, of course, surfed.

"I used to surf the Fox Glacier rivermouth and there'd be chunks of glacier the size of VW cars floating down out of the river and seals sitting on the beach.

"You had the best of both worlds because there was a surf break there that was pretty much unridden and very few people there because it was cold and it was remote and within 2km you could be 8000 to 10,000 feet up in the mountains and skiing.

"It was an era when it was safe to travel.

"You could pitch a tent on the side of the road, go to sleep and wake up the next morning and still be safe.

"We used to also stay at youth hostels because they were cheap and heaps of fun.

"Everyone sort of accepted that sort of travelling more than they do now.

"A lot of it was done on foot. These days a lot of people hire a car and everyone is in hurry.

"These days it's not so much about getting to the destination as it is about the destination itself.

"In those days if you had unlimited time it was about the journey ... sometimes you didn't even get to where you were supposed to be going and it didn't matter."

He spent four months chasing waves in Fiji shortly after the first coup and ended up living in a village while working as a security guard at a nearby resort.

Then followed a year in Europe, working behind the bar in hotels in Austria and skiing word class slopes.

"We used to ski off the mountain, down through the street, pull up outside the pub, hang our skis up, walk in behind the bar and start work," he recalls.

"I missed the surfing but I took a snow board over with me."

He returned home to Dee Why in 1987 but still had itchy feet, so headed to Western Australia for the America's Cup party in Fremantle, doing "the touristy things" and partying for three or four months.

"I was living at home, so I didn't have huge bills to pay and I always travelled cheap," he explains.

"There were weeks and weeks where I slept in my board bag.

"I'd always take my board in a bag and I'd stop somewhere and pull the board out, crawl into the board bag and go to sleep.

"As long as you weren't upsetting anybody, no one seemed to care.

"Unlike now where all these signs pop up in carparks, so people pulling up in vans can't stay the night.

"I mean, what are they hurting?

"I understand there are places that do get trashed and there are people who do trash places but there are people who live her full-time who do that as well."

It was on his return to Sydney that Phil's life took an unexpected return.


10/03/10           189937
Mudjimba surfer Phil Burke believes oil residue is seeping through the sand and starting to appear.
Photo: Cade Mooney Sunshine Coast Daily
Phil on Mudjimba Beach. Cade Mooney/cm189937

A new direction

Reluctant to get back into his trade, he got a job on the refurbishment of the Manly Marina.

Initially, he was involved in the construction but his commercial diving licence allowed him to join the team that collected marine specimens for what was to become Underwater World Manly.

He found himself cruising the bottom of the ocean in diving gear and getting close enough to grey nurse sharks so he could catch them on a hand-held baited hook at the end of four metres of heavy duty line with a wire trace.

Once the sharks were hooked, he'd swim to the surface to help the boat crew pull them aboard.

Phil swears the job was only dangerous once the sharks were onboard the boat and the hook had to be removed before they were put in a storage tank.

"Grey nurses have an undeserved reputation," he says.

"They are a very quiet and docile shark in the water.

"They have a great set of teeth on them and because they are slow moving bottom feeders, their mouths are always open, so they have that fierce look about them.

"Having spent a lot of time with these animals in their natural environment, while I sympathise with anyone who has been bitten by a shark, I reckon you have to be pretty unlucky."

Start talking sharks and the environmentalist in Phil soon come to the surface.

Shark attacks such as those along the east coast last year will continue, he says, and we only have ourselves to blame.

"Unfortunately, I believe it's going to become more and more prevalent because we are depleting the food source.

"We no longer see massive tuna schools travel up and down the east coast of Australia. We're lucky if they come up past Eden any more.

"Where there used to be one trawler operating as a single entity through a co-op, you now have 20 or 30 boats working together in cooperation with a spotter plane.

"So where giant schools used to travel out wide and come up the eastern seaboard, they're not getting that opportunity any more.

"But the food chain is still there so if you deplete one part of it, it has to be replaced by another and as we become more and more populated along the coastline, you get more and more people in the water.

"So if you take remove one source of food supply and put in another one, something is going to happen.

"That's why, I think, we are seeing now with the attacks on the eastern seaboard. And I think that will continue to increase.

"They are not attacking people because they are people.

"They're attacking people because they are in the water."

Having said that, Phil says he doesn't see himself as an "environmentalist" but rather someone who is "environmentally aware".

"I think everyone needs to be environmentally aware and if that means you are an environmentalist, it's not necessarily a bad thing.

"It's not a matter of 'once it's gone, it's gone', it's more a matter of 'what else goes with it when it has gone?'

"For instance, you destroy the underground water table through coal seam gas fracturing and what are the other impacts?

"I've lived at Mudjimba for almost 18 years and it's the first time my bore pump has gone dry.

"The freshwater fissures that come up around Old Woman Island are dry.

"It's not a lack of rainfall that's affecting them.

"It's the loss of the water table through what we are doing environmentally which is causing major problems."


The remains of the cottage on Old Woman Island which Phil has been slowly cleaning up after years of neglect.
The remains of the cottage on Old Woman Island which Phil has been slowly cleaning up after years of neglect. Contributed

Old Woman Island

The mention of Old Woman Island brings Phil to another pet topic - the small island sitting just off his home beach at Mudjimba.

For several years it's been left to deteriorate, despite being a marine sanctuary but in recent times he and others from the community have begun tidying it up.

That's involved removing rubbish left by a stream of visitors and cleaning around the old stone home which has been allowed to deteriorate.

The island is a special place for Phil, as is the water around it and the Mudjimba community that looks out on it.

He moved there in 1994 with his wife Narelle and the first of their three children Kye, now 24.

Phil met Narelle while he was working on construction of Underwater World Mooloolaba and she was employed at The Wharf complex nearby.

After Kye came Savannah, now 18, and Taj, now 17.

Phil also helped collect specimens for the new Mooloolaba aquarium but that came to a sudden halt in July 1993 when a stingray put a barb through his thigh while he was diving off Moreton Isand.

The barb snapped off and with the region's only rescue helicopter at another job, he faced an agonizing trip back to shore with the barb sticking out of his leg.

The stingray, he says, survived and joined the UnderWater collection.

Phil wasn't so lucky.

While the wound itself was bad, the infection which followed forced him out of the water for 18 months with a "hole the size of a tennis ball" in his leg.

He returned to the construction game with Evans Harch as a labourer and after stints with several companies is now a site manager with Stokes Wheeler.

Fighting all comers

But it's impossible to tell Phil Burke's story without talking about his boxing career with the famous Fred Brophy's Boxing Troupe.

Fred and his boys used to travel the show circuit, putting on exhibitions which gave local lads the chance to try their luck in the ring.

The amazing part about Phil's career was that it began not when he was a young, single bloke out to have some fun.

Phil was, in fact, 45 years old and married with three children when he thought he might "give it a go".

His brother had been travelling with the troupe for a while and suggested Phil might like to try it so without any serious fighting or boxing training under his belt, he pulled on the gloves and did well enough for Fred to keep him on.


Fred Brophy drums up fighters to challenge his Boxing Tent troupe at the Mt Isa Rodeo in western Queensland, Sunday Aug. 13, 2006. The travelling show is the last tent boxing show in the world.
Time with Fred Brophy's boxing troupe gave Phil an insight into the lives of people on the land. DAVE HUNT

Over a couple of years, he says he had more than 100 fights and "won more than I lost".

"You didn't hang around for long if you were costing Fred money.

"The contendors used to get $60 for a win, nothing for a draw and the experience if they lost. We got paid the same amount - win, lose or draw.

"I only did it part-time and I was usually only gone from home for a week or so.

"It was different for me. The other boys who were there fighting, it was their job. I was there on a weekend.

"They were a great bunch of guys. To them it was a show. They were very accomplished fighters and didn't mind taking a hit.

"They used to give it out as good as it was given to them by the blokes who put their hand up to have a go.

"Not so much on the eastern seaboard but once you got inland, a lot of the blokes who put their hand up to have a shot at you were out to make a name for themselves.

"You soon became competent in the use of boxing skills ... there was no point in them getting into a show style ring and beating someone up.

"What does it achieve? It's not an encouragement for someone the next show to put their hand up and have a go because they don't want to get hurt.

"But the guys who put their hands up were serious.

"They could gain a lot of status in their region if they said they put one of Brophy's boys down."

Phil says the boxing troupe was about much more than boxing.

"We used to do a lot of fundraising.

"When you blow into a town and you're walking around and you've got Fred Brophy's Boxing Troup on your shirts, you're representing your boss.

"So we had some fairly tough guys with different histories, who fought for Fred, but you were going around helping the showgirls sell raffle tickets and that sort of thing."

And there was a lot of community work that few people knew about.

"I'm from the Coast, born and bred, and my first love is the Coast but to get the chance to travel out west and spend time with the guys who were living on the land but where physically, mentally and emotionally beaten and were trying to make a living for their families.

"Fred and his boys made a lot of friends and influenced and helped a lot of people.

"Before there were all these organised groups raising money for farmers, these guys were travelling from place to place helping people out."

It's a different world

Phil says he's happy with his life these days - the kids are grown up and he and Narelle are enjoying being part of the Mudjimba community.

He hasn't travelled much in recent years, preferring his memories of how places used to be.

"I was seeing places when they were more unspoilt than they are today," he laments.

"They were there and people visited them but they went there to see them and embrace them for what they were - not to change them.

"Not to say 'what a fantastic place, let's put an eco-resort here'.

"Back then, people primarily travelled and only left their footprints.

"They weren't interested in going somewhere and over-developing it or over-populating it or making a buck out of it until it got to the point where you couldn't make a buck out of it any more because no one wanted to be there.

"I remember going to Ayers Rock and climbing Uluru - there was no resort there. There were no tour guides. There was a visitor's book at the top which you used to sign when you climbed to the top.

"It wasn't deemed to be disrespectful and most of the people who went there treated it with awe and wonder of the beauty of the place."

For the same reason he hasn't been back to Fiji, Austraia or New Zealand and has returned to Dee Why only once - to spread his dad's ashes on Dee Why Point.

"It's very much changed ... I wouldn't have recognised the place.

"There were signs in languages you don't understand and all the shops had roller shutters on them.

"It's a different world.

"I guess things have changed everywhere.

"It's not that I live in the past - I embrace the future and whatever it holds but I've been to places and seen them at a time when I was grateful to see them.

"I don't like going back to places and seeing major change because it's not always for the better.

"It's all about having memories.

"I want my kids to embrace travelling and see what they want to see of the world but travelling as a whole, in my eyes, has changed.

"The world is not what it used to be.

"I would still like to be able to travel the way I did and I know you can't do that now."


Mudjimba's Phil Burke with Old Woman Island in the background.
Mudjimba's Phil Burke with Old Woman Island in the background. Contributed

Phil admits he worries about the future of the planet even though he believes its destruction is inevitable.

"I think it doesn't whether we change or not, as a species our days are numbered any way.

"It just shows how ignorant we are as a species that we think we can continue to do what we are doing and maintain the lifestyle we've got, and expect this planet to be here for an indefinite term.

"We are destroying this planet and when it's gone, we will be gone too.

"The planet itself will eventually, like all planets, implode or explode but I don't believe we need to speed up the process."

A bright future

He says he is happiest paddling to Old Woman Island or simply sitting on his board waiting for a wave that might never come.

"I'm happiest in the water, that's where I find my peace.

"I find my solitude and get back to my centre self.

"Primarily I paddle. The destination isn't always what it's about - it's the journey to get there.

"I don't think I necessarily solve the problems of the world out there, but I think I dilute them.

"I'm quite happy to paddle out and just sit out there and go wherever the wind and current take me, until I'm ready to paddle back.

"I don't necessarily need to paddle out to get a wave - I'm just happy to sit there and float. You need places to follow your own solitude."


The water of Mudjimba is where Phil goes to think, on this occasion farewelling surfing legend and good mate Peter Troy in 2008.
The water off Mudjimba is where Phil goes to think, on this occasion farewelling surfing legend and good mate Peter Troy in 2008. Jason Dougherty

He says he's not religious but can understand why some people are.

"I would say I am spiritual, rather than religious.

"I don't need a building with an effigy on the wall to pray to. My god is with me when I paddle out on the water.

"I understand people who follow religions and have temples and things - that's where they find their solitary time and are able to collect their thoughts or pray.

"Mine's in the water, which I'm grateful for.

"It's a great cathedral."